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R-aga (Hindi/Urdu: r-ag, Tamil: r-agam) is a concept of melodic organization in
Indian classical music, operating between the levels of scale and melody as these
terms are understood in Western music. Several ragas may share the same scale
(thata, mela); each raga can serve as the basis for an infinite number of melodic
compositions or improvisations. Raga is central to Indian musical theory,
aesthetics and practice; but it also links musical sounds with associated cultural
meanings, and thus has important connections with the visual arts, literature and
drama/film. It is a central feature of both the Northern (Hindusthani) and Southern
(Karnatak) branches of the Indian classical music tradition, which is recognized
internationally as a symbol of South Asian culture.i To some extent raga
distinguishes classical music from other types of South Asian music; but elements
of raga also occur in many types of folk, devotional, ritual, stage and film music
in South Asia.ii There is no direct equivalent in Western music; raga encapsulates
aspects of the relationship between music and meaning that have only recently
been explored by Western theorists (see later). Although a technical term of
music, raga has found its way into common parlance, in expressions such as he
sings his own rag (i.e. blows his own trumpet), he sings a long rag (talks
longwindedly),or rags, cooking and turbans [turn out differently each time]. Such
expressions reflect different aspects of the concept of raga as a musical term, and
the importance of music as a source of cultural metaphors.


Raga is a noun derived from the Sanskrit root ranj, to colour, especially to
colour red, and hence to delight. Red is the colour of passion, hence raga
implies the emotional content of a song, by which the listener is delighted. In this
general sense, the term is used by Kalidasa and Bharata.iii In its technical musical
sense, of a melodic structure having a particular emotional affect, the term is first
defined by Matanga, who sets out an elaborate system of ragas and other melodic
structures in his musical treatise Brihad-desi (ninth century AD?).iv Matangas
definition combines the structural and aesthetic aspects of the concept: That
particularity of notes and melodic movementsby which one is delighted, is
raga. Musical treatises from this time onwards define ragas principally in terms
of their tonal characteristics scale, strong and weak notes, omitted notes,
melodic motifs etc. But the limitations of such technical definitions were
recognized early: around 1100 AD, Nanyadeva observed that There are many
variants among the ragas [which] are subtle and difficult to define, just as the
different flavours of sugar, treacle and candycannot be separately described, but
must be experienced for oneself.v It is therefore the performances of musicians
trained in the oral tradition, and the melodic compositions handed down in that
tradition, that are regarded as the true expressions of raga.

There is no fixed number of ragas. A performer may have a working

repertoire of around 50 ragas, but many more are attested in collections of
compositions or theoretical works. Theoretical sources from different periods and
regions show that while some raga names, and some elements of structure, have
survived over many centuries, others have disappeared as new ones are
introduced. Creation of new ragas is limited by the belief that ragas are not human
works but living, spiritual or semi-divine beings; an apparently new raga is
therefore more likely to be a little-known old raga, a raga from a different regional
tradition, or a variant or combination of existing ragas, than a wholly new
creation. For the same reason ragas are often held to be immutable; but it is
recognized that schools and individuals have different idiolects, and historical
scholarship has shown that significant changes can occur over a period of
generations.vi For each musician, it is his own teachers interpretation that is

Asked to define a raga, a musician might play one or more characteristic

phrases or motifs, or render a complete composition. Theoretical texts often
combine the motifs of a raga into an inflected octave scale, showing how different
motifs, and even different pitches, may be taken in ascent and descent. In
performance, the raga is usually presented in the form of a pre-composed song or
instrumental melody, set in any appropriate metrical cycle (tala), and elaborated
with pre-composed or improvised variations. The pre-composed material can be
optionally preceded by an unaccompanied, non-metrical, improvised introduction,
the alap, conceived as a discourse on the raga, during which the musical structure
and aesthetic character of the raga are gradually unfolded in a sequence of
different pitch-registers and rhythmic styles. During such improvisation, the
performer may conceive himself or herself as a conduit through which the raga
flows, rather than as the performer or creator of a musical work.


Throughout its history, the musical concept of raga has been linked with extra-musical
domains in a variety of ways. In the earliest sources, ragas are assigned
aesthetic functions in the domain of drama: different ragas are deemed suitable for
different phases of the drama, characters, settings or emotional situations.vii At the
same time many ragas bore (and still bear) the names of provincial or exotic
regions of the then-known world, or of tribal ethnic groups, viii suggesting perhaps
a Tantric attribution of power to the DESI domain; Matangas Brhad-desi reflects
this approach.

As music became recognized as an art-form in its own right, independent

of drama, associations with contexts and powers developed in parallel. From the
11th century, ragas were assigned a time of day and/or season of the year at which
they should be performed associations which remain important in the
Hindustani classical music tradition, and in some traditions of temple music,
where ragas are assigned to a daily cycle of eight periods. Devotional poetry
intended for singing is hence normally ascribed to ragas, and sung by devotional
singers in either classical ragas or local equivalents at the appropriate hours or
three seasons. Time associations seem initially to have been explained as increasing
the auspiciousness of ragas when performed at the correct time, but later came to be
seen as essential for the aesthetic appreciation of the music.ix The 17th-century
Orissan treatise Sangita-narayana states that Violation of the correct times for
performance surely leads to complete ruin, except that it is not a fault in
ensemble singing, at the order of a king, or on the theatre stage.x Seasonal
associations led to the attribution to ragas of powers over the natural world: thus
the spring raga Hindol could cause flowers to blossom, the rainy-season raga
Malhar could produce a downpour, if performed correctly.xi The incendiary
properties attributed to raga Dipak led to its avoidance in practical use.
The power of ragas was initially conceived in terms of the benefits
resulting from their performance primarily aesthetic benefits, analysable in
terms of the theory of RASA. Health and good fortune were other benefits of music
in general. The great 13th-century musical theorist Sarngadeva framed his treatise
Sangita-ratnakara with reference to medical (Ayurvedic) principles, though he
did not attribute therapeutic properties specifically to ragas.xii The Sangitanarayana
allocates the benefits of raga according to the number of notes to the
octave: ragas with seven notes confer Long life, merit, fame, good repute,
success, health, wealth, long lineage which brings prosperity to the kingdomxiii;
those with six are suitable for the praising of heroism in battle, of beauty of form
and qualities;xiv those with five are to be sung in the expulsion of disease, in the
destruction of ones enemies, in doing away with fear and grief, and in rites of
propitiation of the planets.xv Therapeutic powers were first attributed directly to
ragas by Mughal writers, who explained the purported emotional effects of the
Hindustani ragas by drawing relationships between the ragas and the Unani
humours, and the [notes] and the astrological bodies. In this way, the
extramusical associations of the ragas, and in particular their auspicious timings,
became indispensible to the wellbeing of listeners.xvi

The powers of ragas were and are attributed to divine agency. In the 13th
Century, Sarngadeva assigned a patron deity to each raga. Later, ragas were
themselves represented as semi-divine beings. In a famous story from the
Brhaddharma Purana (13th century?), the musician Narada is taken to heavenly realms
to confront the souls of the male ragas and female raginis cruelly injured by his
inept performances; when Siva sings them correctly, each raga or ragini presents
him- or herself in person.xvii Pictures of ragas, along with scales, notes and
microtones, represented as gods and goddesses, occur in the Jain Kalpa-sutra (14th
century).xviii This divine personification of ragas was partly secularised in the
ragamala verses and paintings popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, where many
ragas and raginis are interpreted as amorous heroes and heroines (nayaka and
nayika).xix Thus ragini Gondakiri, a girl of dark complexion, [lying] on a bed of
soft flowers and thirsting for love, looks here and there in her anguish, waiting for
her lovers arrival.xx Some ragas however retained explicitly divine identities:
Raga Bhairav, named after Sivas terrifying manifestation, carries a drum and a
trident, is wearing a snake as necklace, has a white complexion, is shining and is
besmeared with ashes. He has the crescent and Ganga [on his head], has [the
ascetics] twisted hair, is wearing an elephants skin, is unusually handsome and
has three eyesxxi these are all iconographic attributes of Siva. Albums of
paintings based on such raga verses, from the Mughal, Rajasthani and other
provincial courts, are among the masterpieces of South Asian painting of the 16th
to 18th centuries, and reflect the high status of music as a courtly art-form.

The extra-musical powers and associations of ragas are a traditional topos

in literature and drama as well as painting. Thus the raga Malhar is equated with
the rainy season in most texts, though also represented in some as a wandering
ascetic. Both these meanings are evoked in a 17th-century Nepalese ragamala
painting (fig. 1),xxii and in Bankim Chatterjees Bengali novel Anandamath
(1882), where the song Vande mataram is sung in rag Malhar by a band of yogis
striding through the monsoon night.xxiii (Set by Rabindranath Tagore to a melody
in a different raga, this song became an emblem of Indian nationalism in the 20th
century.) Raga Malhar is also brilliantly used to link the awesome powers of
nature and the heros internal conflict in Satyajit Rays film Jalsaghar.xxiv
Elements of raga can be heard in popular movies too, performing characteristic
aesthetic roles alongside imported Hollywood film-score clichs and other
international genres.xxv Thus in Mughal-e-Azam,xxvi for example, motifs of the
raga Darbari Kanada are used ironically to set the heroines lament on being
imprisoned by the emperor Akbar: not only is it a melancholy raga, but it is
associated with the court (darbar) of Akbar in all its grandeur, since it is believed
to have been invented by his court musician Tansen.

There is no exact equivalent to raga in Western music. As an entity between scale
and tune, raga finds its closest relatives in the dastgah of Iranian music, the
maqam of Arab, Turkish and Central Asian musics, the Jewish prayer modes, and
the pathet of Javanese gamelan. Like raga, these entities are defined in terms of
pitch-structure but may have aesthetic or cultural meanings; many musicologists
would now describe them all as modes, the definition of this Western musical
term having been expanded by theorists to take account of the special
characteristics of raga and other Asian modal systems.xxvii
Research in linguistics, cognition and musical analysis suggests that raga
may be a characteristic South Asian formulation of more widespread phenomena.
Structural relationships between ragas have been aptly compared with lexical
systems.xxviii It seems plausible to regard a raga as a cognitive schema, a memory
structure comprising an ordered array of categories representing temporal or
spatial organization of experience, which can generate expectations and frame
improvised behaviour. xxix Raga also shows similarities with intonation theory,
according to which conventional musical figures constitute the expressive
vocabulary of a culture and a period, and trigger affective and other culturally defined
meanings.xxx In South Asia, a combination of orally-transmitted
performance practice emphasis on memory, and rigorous shastric analysis,xxxi has
brought to consciousness and refined in unique ways aspects of musical
communication that perhaps, underlie all musics.

i The many sources discussing raga in English include: Walter Kaufmann, The
ragas of North India, Indiana 1968; Nazir Jairazbhoy, The rags of North Indian
music, their structure and evolution, London 1971; Walter Kaufmann, The ragas
of South India, Indiana 1976; Joep Bor et al., The raga guide: a survey of 74
Hindustani ragas (set of 4 audio CDs with book), London 1999; Harold Powers
and Richard Widdess, article India, sub-continent of: III. Theory and practice of
classical music, 2. Raga, in Stanley Sadie, ed.,The New Grove Dictionary of
Music, London 2001; George Ruckert and Richard Widdess, Hindustani raga,
and Gayathri Rajapur Kassebaum, Karnatak raga, in Alison Arnold, ed., The
Garland encyclopedia of World Music, vol 5: South Asia, New York and London,
2000, pp. 6488 and 89109.
ii Cf. Charles Capwell, Music of the Bauls of Bengal, Kent, 1986, pp. 1425;
Regula Burghardt Qureshi, Sufi music of India and Pakistan: sound, context and
meaning in qawwali, Cambridge 1986, 4753; Gordon Thompson, Whats in a
dhal? Evidence of raga-like approaches in a Gujarati musical tradition,
Ethnomusicology vol. 39 no. 3, 1995, pp. 41732; Jzef Pacholczyk, Sufyana
Musiqi: the classical music of Kashmir, Berlin 1996; Ingemar Grandin, Raga
Basanta and the spring songs of the Kathmandu Valley: a musical Great Tradition
among Himalayan farmers?, in Frank Bernde, ed., Himalayan Music: state of
the art, special issue of European Bulletin of Himalayan Research vols. 12-13,
1997, pp. 5780; Edward O. Henry, Melodic structure of the khari biraha of
North India: a simple model, Asian Music 33/1, 2002, pp. 10524; Richard
Widdess, Carya and caca: change and continuity in Newar Buddhist ritual song,
Asian Music vol. 35 no. 2, pp. 741.
iii See Richard Widdess, The ragas of early Indian music, Oxford: Clarendon
Press 1995, pp. 4042.
iv Ibid.
v Ibid.
vi Jairazbhoy, The rags of North Indian music; H.S. Powers, An historical and
comparative approach to the classification of ragas, Selected reports in
ethnomusicology vol. 1 no. 3, 1970.
vii Widdess, Ragas of early Indian music, 435
viii Ibid, 228
ix Mukund Lath, An enquiry into the ragatime association, in Sumati Mutatkar,
(ed.): Aspects of Indian music, New Delhi 1987, pp. 113-119
x Pariccheda 1, v. 341. Translated by Jonathan Katz, The musicological portions
of the Sangitanarayana: a critical edition and commentary, DPhil dissertation,
University of Oxford 1987, vol. I, p. 89.
xi Vidyarthi, G, Effect of ragas and mannerism in singing: a chapter from
Madanul Moosiqi written in 1856 by Hakim Mohammad Karam Imam, a courtier
of Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow, Sangeet Natak Akademi Bulletin 13-14, 1959, pp.
xii Sarngadeva, The Sangita-ratnakara of Sarngadeva, ed. and trans. R.K. Shringy
and P.L. Sharma, vol.1, Varanasi, 1978; vol. 2, New Delhi, 1989
xiii 1.158; Katz, Sangitanarayana, I, p. 39.
xiv 1.222; ibid. I, p. 58.
xv 1.266; ibid. I, p. 70.